clay county histories
Markus Krueger | Program Director HCSCC
Our nation is currently reconsidering whether it is appropriate to honor Confederate generals with statues and names on military bases. It’s nice to see the rest of the country has finally caught up to us in Clay and Wilkin counties. We decided more than 150 years ago that it was NOT okay to glorify the Confederacy, so we changed our names.
In 1857 an expedition of land speculators established a new town on the Red River. They named it after Vice President John C. Breckinridge. This was a great honor, but they spelled his name wrong – note that Breckenridge, Minnesota, has an E in the middle instead of an I. When the new state of Minnesota was naming counties, Mr. Breckinridge was again honored, this time as the namesake of a misspelled county just north of his city. His city was in Toombs County, named for Georgia Senator Robert Toombs.
In 1860 John C. Breckinridge lost the presidential election to Abraham Lincoln. The thought of a president who did not like slavery was too much for many white southerners to bear. Before Lincoln even took office, Senator Robert Toombs led the movement for Georgia to secede from the USA, and he helped set up the rival Confederate States of America. Toombs almost became the first Confederate president but he spent the war as a Secretary of State and brigadier general in the CSA. Former Vice President John C. Breckinridge also became a general in the Confederate Army and ended the conflict as the Confederate Secretary of War. Fun fact: all three of the Union volunteers from what used to be Breckenridge County – Adam Stein, Justus Probstfield, and Anthony Probstfield – fought directly against General Breckinridge in the Vicksburg Campaign, contributing to the utter cleaning-of-the-clock of their county’s namesake.
Breckinridge and Toombs were seen as traitors throughout the north, undeserving of counties in Minnesota. Breckinridge County was renamed for Senator Henry Clay, who spent his career trying to keep the Union together. The city of Breckenridge was burned and abandoned during the US-Dakota War of 1862 but the old name returned when the railroad reestablished the town a decade later.
And the soldiers garrisoning Fort Abercrombie no longer looked across the river at a county named for the traitor Toombs. It was renamed Andy Johnson County after a southern politician who remained fiercely loyal to the Union. Unfortunately, this name would prove to be a stinker, too. Abraham Lincoln chose Andy Johnson to be his vice president in 1864, so it was he who became president the following year when the Lincoln was murdered. Most historians agree that President Johnson was one of the very worst presidents in our nation’s history, so in 1868 the Minnesotans went looking for a new new name. They decided finally on someone who wouldn’t embarrass them in the future: Lt. Col. Alexander Wilkin of the 9th Minnesota Infantry was killed at the Battle of Tupelo four years earlier.